Friday, August 24, 2007

A Citizen's Conscience

I am going to be as diplomatic as I can be here, because this is a topic where emotions run very high. But I can no longer be silent on a topic which touches all of us, regardless of the problems it causes me, and the friendships it will, almost certainly cost me.

The problems with LL and SL are deep, and growing deeper. The present political and economic arrangements are intolerable, and we can see this because people are voting with their fingers and not logging into Second Life, and not spending Linden. LL is not a reliable service provider, and our so called leadership that has self-appointed arrogance as its power base is intolerable.

The Open Letter project, to be blunt, is counter-productive and has been halting real progress at putting real pressure on LL. It is counter-productive because it sets at each other's throats two groups of people who should be working together. Look at my profile in sl. What does it say.

That is correct, it says "payment information not on file."

Why is this? LL can't even keep track of where my prims are, how can I expect it to keep track of my financial information? I know for a fact that LL gives out that information for all sorts of reasons, as do individual Lindens. A company that cannot be trusted to keep track of its own asset servers, and which has a "We don't have to obey the law or respect your rights," as their corporate culture, is not someone that I, or anyone, should feel comfortable about giving personal information too.

The unverified are the pool of cheap labor that many content providers use to run their clubs, build, script and so on. We, the unverified, buy things from people. The problem is not we, the unverified, but the traffic system, and the camping system that grows up in the wake of it. The Open Letter project has gotten one narrow slice of people to sign it, but there is a much larger slice of people, myself included, who are not just not going to sign it, but who are completely opposed to it, and the way it is run. That's being as nice as I can be. I've held my tongue several times, because I know the people running the project don't listen on this point, and will never listen. I have private thoughts on what this means, but this is a public post. A few thousand people is a drop of water compared to the active user base, much of which is, and will remain, unverified.

Instead the solution is to abolish traffic as the search system, and replace it with inbound SURL links in web pages, weighted by their Second Life related authority. It will take programming to do this, but a great deal less than the clean up after the problems that the current system causes. Sim crashes, asset problems, lag and assorted other problems are directly rooted in traffic. Again, I am being as diplomatic about this as I can.

Then ban camping and parking. Just ban them.

Throttling is vicious, stupid and evil as an idea. It is also going to be ineffective, because all it will do, with an open source client world, is start an arms race to build more and more sophisticated ways to log in over and over and over and over again until success is achieved. There are bot ways to create Google Mail accounts, and there will be bot log ins. The camper, since he or she does not care about having access to a particular avatar at a particular time, will be able to cycle through 10, 20, 40 alts even if you block a log in for some period of time after a failure. The unverified player like myself, will have no use for them, because unreliable access to our real avatars is no access at all. Reduce the number of people who can camp, and it will just mean that the dedicated camphackers will have more to themselves. Fewer real players, more hackers and problems. Bad idea.

Again, I'm being diplomatic.

The productive solution is to end traffic and end camping. It is clear that LL has mechanisms to ban gambling and the kinds of payout patterns associated with it. Ending camping would be just as possible, since campers who are paid only at the end of some long period of time will soon learn that they will be scammed often, and paying up front for camping is not going to happen for the same reason. The micro-payment camping culture is the result of the corrupt paying the parasitic.

The camping culture becomes an arms race. Even people like me, who hate it, have to participate in it, even if it is just to the extent of getting friends to stay logged in, and staying logged in myself. Major designers pay for camping, which is absurd. Vindi shouldn't need window washers. And isn't there a better use for the CMU mocap database?

Camping farms are even worse still. They overcharge for freebies, because people coming in with money to spend go their first. They get taken for hundreds or thousands of Linden of being overcharged, and then go away from SL because they are disgusted. I've put ads in camping farms, and they overcharge for their fake traffic, and produce no results for it. They are, all the way around, useless for players of SL.

LL has an interest in camping, because it produces fake high traffic numbers, and they use this to convince people that SL has users. But many of those users aren't. LL in turn was driven to push voice, because voice is a way of getting users to find each other amidst all the bots.

But the players of SL, the people logged in and doing things, even if some of the time, don't. Even campers are not better off, because they are paying into a system that keeps prices out of reach for them. Most people who camp would much rather be able to play.

Camper culture also creates a something for nothing attitude that fed into Ginko. Many of the people dumping money into Ginko were campers. The game was to multi-camp several avatars, then dump into Ginko. 2000L a week, which many multi-campers I talked to were able to pull down by camping 6 avatars in the best places, piled up at 100% interest looked like it could lead some place. There is even a blog devoted to someone who was going to try and get a million linden by doing nothing.

The problem here isn't unverifieds, because, frankly, the same people who signed the open letter want them camping, they just want to have fewer of them, so they can get the benefits of camper culture for less. I'm again going to be diplomatic and avoid drawing rl comparisions, because they are odious. But they are there. The problem is that people are paid to do bad things, and not paid to do good things. We don't pay people for interesting conversation, that is supposed to be free. We pay people to camp and resell freebies at astronomical mark ups. Is it any wonder that good conversation is harder to find than camper farms?

But the solution must go farther than traffic and camping, and must be a cultural change as well. Techie solutions never work as well as people think they will. I have heard for months about how voice would drive men who play female escorts out, and that there would be many fewer women avatars after voice. It hasn't happened. Yes a few men have gone over to being male escorts and dancers, and there are somewhat more het-male escorts now than there were before. But in the main, men who play women on sl do so because, well, they want to walk on the wild side. Just as straight people who play bisexuals or lesbians or homosexuals on sl, do so because they want to do it. The same will be true of any technical solution to our camping problems. People will do a great deal of work to get something for nothing.

Part of the solution is going to have to be a realization that rules and regulations are often good, because they push out dishonesty. Good content providers are hurt by bad ones, just as good dance clubs are hurt by empty camping ones, and good escorts hurt by people who take money and disappear. LL is ideologically in capable of doing this, and that is going to kill SL in the end if not changed. Wikipedia was started by a hard core libertarian, it has a government now, and that government is extensive. Reality intrudes, and the reality is that both outside interests and inside conflicts require some way of mediating them.

This has to start from within SL culture itself. Yes we need to compete, and compete hard, to produce the best. However, that competition needs to be within some rules of the game, that promote the good, and get rid of the bad, rather than just reward the worst for doing their worst. I've been guilty of doing some of the worst, and I know almost everyone else has too, even if they don't admit it. In my defense I will say that the worst has also been done to me a great deal more than I have done it, which is not much of a defense in my eyes.

This is why people come together, because when one little person is where the wheel is crushing them under, they have to do whatever they have to do. But if the wheel itself is stopped, then it is much less common that people do things out of need. There will always be bad people, I know that, and am not saying that there is a happy paradise. I am saying that the work and costs of not having rules and not having structure are now much more, and much worse.

Before there were people rushing through the door to get in. I find an interesting pattern, there are lots of people who were here first in 2004, and lots of people who are within the last year, but very few people in the middle of that. We are losing people faster than we get them. Many people have bet heavily on the good times always rolling, but the daily log in numbers tell the story: the collapse of Ginko marks, even if it didn't cause, a decline in people being logged in.

One friend of mine pointed out that what has effectively happened is that camping wages have been slashed by several factors. He points out that gambling paid the highest camping, he ran a gambling place earlier this year and said he could always pay more than other people to get campers. He also points out that with businesses having less and less money coming in, they are paying for less camping. He goes on to point out that without Ginko effectively doubling camping wages with its interest rates, that, all things taken together, camping wages have been slashed at least by 75%. This has cut out, in his estimation, about 5000 camping logins. I will take his word for it, but even if his estimates are off, I think the results are visible.

I'd also add to this an observation from a major club owner that I know: that because being in the top 20 is now out of reach for almost anyone actually providing content, because to get enough camping to be in the top 20 the sim has to be almost unusably laggy for any other purpose, many people have given up on the camping wars entirely, and provide a bit of camping more as a way of getting people to come in to the club, than as a way of boosting traffic.

In short, the camping culture is killing sl, and it is dying itself as it kills the rest of us.

The time then has come to make a simple point over and over again, the "strategy," if it was one, I don't know if anyone ever sat down and thought about it, of pumping up numbers with campers, and making residents slit each others throats, is coming to an end.

So what about having people buy things in SL? I have a simple proposal. Right now, LL will only let people buy Liden who get verified. End this. Make it so that anyone who wants to buy Linden can, and do so without providing a permanent credit card. Let people buy with one use credit cards, unverified paypal accounts and so. If the barrier to buying Linden is lowered, then more people will do it. I can get iTunes credit for my bottle deposits, why not have LL do the same thing? Type in a code, the code is printed on paper, but has a PIN that was entered in at the time of getting the credit. Anonymous, open, and lets people turn pocket change into Linden. More Linden coming in will be good for the people selling content and services.

So there it is: end traffic and camping, lower barriers to buying Linden, and end the pernicious internal war between groups of users, because, ultimately, the people who want to make in world better are on the same side, merely being forced by a badly designed economy to do things to each other, whether the open letter or camping, which are bad for everyone.

I could be awful and point out that this is liberalism, capitalism and democracy, and I think I will be. What we have now isn't any of them, but feudalism, mercantilism and aristocracy. These are inherently bad ways of doing things versus more modern things, and it is time to end the experiment of seeing whether the digital world can roll the clock back to 1700 and still work. It doesn't, that world died because it was no good to the core, and we should be dancing on its grave, and not digging up its corpse and engaging in social necrophilia. I'm serious, this is perverted in ways that anything people do with virtual sex in SL doesn't begin to match.

There, I've broken my rule against writing about the big picture. I know that there are going to be big costs, because even what I have said will make me unwelcome in various places. I know that is the case, and I am willing to pay that price, because people who won't listen to reason, and there are some who won't, aren't worth talking to, and can't be friends in the long run. I won't maintain contacts at the cost of conscience. I'm a pixel prostitute, but not, quite, a whore.

I'm sorry for the hurt that that will cause, but sometimes the circumstances require telling people that friendship, as a moral obligation, has to bow before citizenship, as an ethical one. I can no longer sit silent as someone who writes, and watch Linden Labs engage in selfish corruption, camping culture engage in selfish consumption, and the so-called leadership of Second Life's residents pursue self-centered final solutions to the problems of LL, so long as they don't have to pay anything for those solutions. Instead, it is time to realize that that only by acting in the general interest that we can make this world work. I include Linden Labs, which is a for profit venture and has every reason to expect to be able to profit from the work that they do, just not dump the costs on to their user base and say "we are a service provider! We aren't responsible for the carnage we create!"

I am a citizen of Second Life, and I am here to say that it is time that citizens of second life demand their inherent right to have a say under the rules which govern their lives, and have the inherent duty to use that inherent right to do good as we understand the good. This will result, I know, in decisions I won't like. But so does the system as it is. It will result, I am sure, in a better, but far from perfect, Second World.

If that makes me a pariah in some houses, and I know it will, then it is the price that must be paid for the liberties which Second Life has given me. Liberties I hold as precious, and which others do as well.

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